Food & Drink

What Is Tempura? All About the Crispy, Crunchy Japanese Art

Alongside sushi and ramen, tempura is one of Japan’s best-known dishes. Across the globe, the rise in popularity of Japanese cuisine has brought with it a newfound curiosity for its flavors and cooking techniques. 

So what does “tempura” mean? Think fish, seafood or vegetables, fried in a mouthwateringly crispy batter coating. Wanna try it? (We already know the answer is yes.) Read on to find out more.

In the article:

What Is Tempura?

A traditional Japanese dish for centuries, crispy tempura is now enjoyed both in Japan and around the world.

Although it’s fried, it’s not overly greasy or stodgy, and its characteristically light and crispy batter sets it apart from other types of battered food. What you choose to coat in batter is up to you, so there are many different types of tempura, including prawn, shrimp and vegetable. There’s no limit to what ingredients you can fry.

What Is Tempura Batter Made Of?

Close-up of someone holding up a shrimp tempura with chopsticks.

Tempura batter is made up of water, flour and sometimes egg, which together creates that signature golden crunch. The water needs to be ice cold to slow down the gluten formation and stop the batter from becoming too dense.

With such simple ingredients, there are plenty of ways to add a little variation:

  • Rice flour – Swapping out regular all-purpose flour with rice flour creates a delicate crispness to the batter due to its low gluten level. 
  • Wheat flour – This brings out a stronger flavor, although it needs to be mixed carefully to maintain fluffiness.
  • Sparkling water – Some dedicated chefs even use sparkling water, creating extra air bubbles to lighten the texture.
  • Baking powder – Adding baking powder can help the mixture lift and is a good alternative to using egg. 
  • Sesame oil – You can fry your batter in regular vegetable oil, but the more traditional sesame oil gives it a lovely nutty aroma.

What Is in Tempura? What Types Are There?

Tempura is classified as any dish that has been fried in tempura batter, so there are many different types:

Shrimp tempura

A basket of shrimp tempura with a dipping sauce on the side,

Shrimp is probably the most-iconic type of tempura. With the tails left intact during the peeling process, tempura shrimp has that signature look and eye-catching presentation.

Vegetable tempura

A plate of vegetable tempura.

Vegetables have always been a common tempura ingredient. Root vegetables such as sweet potato or squash are popular, as well as shiitake mushrooms, bell peppers and even lotus roots.

Prawn tempura

A bowl of prawn tempura with a dipping sauce.

Served as a light snack or within a dish, prawns are a regular on the menu. Often served alongside shrimp, prawns have a lighter taste, with the larger tiger prawn being the best size for frying.

Squid tempura

A plate of squid tempura with vegetables and a dipping sauce on the side.

Squid tempura is another classic style, commonly served in a ring shape that’s associated with calamari.

Chicken tempura

A plate of chicken tempura with a dipping sauce on the side.

While chicken isn’t as common as seafood fried tempura, it’s a specialty in southern Japan and pairs with a sweet sauce. Other meats such as beef can also be fried.

Tempura sushi

Close-up of a tempura sushi roll.

Combining the beautiful art of sushi with the irresistible tempura crunch is a no-brainer. This adaptation is a fun way to experience Japanese cuisine by tempura frying what’s inside the sushi roll (such as shrimp or vegetables), or going all out and battering the entire roll.

What to Serve With Tempura?

The simplest way to eat tempura is on its own, which is how it was eaten originally. But there are many dishes you can enjoy alongside tempura, and working out which flavor combinations pair best is part of the fun.

Tempura served with rice

Aerial view of a bowl of shrimp tempura over rice with soy sauce on the side for dipping.

Place your tempura onto a bowl of steamed rice with some soy sauce, dashi and mirin and you’ll have yourself a Tendon. This dish is made “donburi style,” with the option to dip your tempura straight into the sauce, or drizzle the sauce over the entire dish.

Tempura served with noodles

A large bowl of shrimp tempura over noodles.

If rice is not your style, pair it with soba or udon noodles. Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour and bring out that sweet, nutty taste of tempura. Udon noodles can be served in a soup broth, which complements that tempura crunch. 

Dipping Sauces

  • Soy Dip your tempura into soy sauce to enjoy a simple-yet-classic flavor combo.
  • Ten-tsuyu A very common dipping sauce with a rich soy flavor. 
  • Oroshi With a more citrusy flavor, oroshi is made with grated ponzu and daikon radish.

When Was Tempura Invented?

The origin of tempura is a tasty one. It began in the 16th century when Portuguese and Spanish pioneers came to Japan, bringing with them the method of deep-frying food.

This new technique of frying batter arrived in the riverside fish stalls of 17th-century Japan, as the “food cart” culture grew in popularity alongside the availability of fish. What started out as a street-food dish in Tokyo is now the tasty tempura we know and love.

How Do I Make Tempura?

Close-up of someone making tempura in a large pot of boiling oil.

With such simple ingredients that you’re sure to have in the house, tempura is easy to make. 

Making the batter

To make the tempura batter, grab yourself an egg and some iced water and mix them using a fork (or chopsticks if you’re feeling adventurous). 

Next mix in the flour. The key to tempura batter is keeping the mixture light and airy, so be sure not to overwork it. This will lock in any pockets of air that give the batter its fluffy texture. 

Frying to perfection

Heat your oil in a large wok or saucepan. Sesame oil is traditionally used, but vegetable oil works great too. Lightly coat your chosen fish, seafood or vegetable filling in the batter and place into the oil. After a minute or so, it should turn a glorious golden color. That means it’s ready to come out. 

Serving

Japanese cuisine is famous for its presentation, so be sure to make it look great on the plate and serve with a dipping sauce. Let the excess oil drain from the tempura and pat down with a paper towel. Serve when it’s hot and fresh to enjoy that all-important crispiness. 

Tempura Tips

  • Tempura ice cream is a thing – You can fry almost anything tempura style, so why not try it sweet?
  • Get close to the action – Because it’s best served hot and fresh, some Japanese restaurants let you reserve the seat right next to the fryer.
  • There’s a holiday – Tempura is so popular that it has a whole day dedicated to it. You can celebrate National Tempura Day on Jan. 7 for a good excuse to dig in! 

FAQs

Close-up of a sushi roll topped with tempura flakes with balls of wasabi on the side.

What are tempura flakes?

These are crunchy pieces of fried tempura batter made of water, flour and egg. They can be used as a topping on typical Japanese dishes for an added crunch.

Is shrimp tempura cooked?

Yes, shrimp tempura is cooked when you eat it. The raw shrimp is coated in batter and cooked during the frying process when it’s added to hot oil.   

How do I eat tempura?

It’s important to eat tempura in the order that it’s served so that you enjoy the dish while it’s still hot and crispy. You can eat it with a dipping sauce such as ten-tsuyu sauce. 

What is tempura mix?

Tempura batter mix is made up of flour, water and egg. Although the ingredients are simple, you can buy pre-made tempura mix which may contain ingredients like rice flour or baking soda. All you need to do is add water.

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